The two biggest names in gaming are gearing up for a heated head-to-head battle in the lead-up to Christmas.
In one corner is Microsoft with the 4K-enabled Xbox One X. That goes up against Sony’s PlayStation 4 Pro which launched last year, and while Sony has undoubtedly come out on top in terms of number of consoles sold so far this hardware generation, Microsoft will soon have the most powerful machine.
This matters when the majority of games continuing to come to both platforms. It means each brand is working hard to differentiate itself to gamers looking to expand their options and, importantly, to those still waiting to jump in.
In terms of what PlayStation has that Xbox doesn’t, Sony’s head of sales and marketing Jim Ryan insists there is a range of games on PS4 that you simply can’t get on Microsoft’s machines.
“They obviously have some very good exclusive games, but I think when you put the two side-by-side there is a range, breadth and depth of exclusive games on PlayStation,” he told Fairfax Media on the sidelines of the E3 expo in Los Angeles earlier this month.
“This year you’ll have GT Sport coming before Christmas, and a really great-looking Uncharted experience. And that on the back of Horizon Zero Dawn.”
Ryan notes these three games represent Sony’s “development centres of excellence” in Japan, the US and Europe respectively.
For his part, Microsoft’s Phil Spencer backs the selection of games on Xbox, saying the titles it showcased at E3 was its “most diverse line-up ever.”
“I liked having Japanese games on our stage, I liked having things like [French indie] The Last Night, which I thought was just a fantastic artsy game.” He also draws a contrast between painterly platformer Ori and the Will of the Wisps and multiplayer explosion fest Anthem, very different games that both featured at Xbox’s conference.
Overall though, Spencer says what really sets Xbox apart is that it’s wholly concerned with “putting the gamer at the centre”.
“Things like [subscription service] Games Pass … things like supporting the library of games that you already own. We’re all about offering the gamer choice.”
Spencer also outlined some examples of PlayStation practices he didn’t think would fly on team Xbox.
“This one will be a little divisive: I’m not somebody who goes and signs a marketing deal to keep PlayStation fans from getting a certain skin or doing a certain strike,” he says, referring to Sony’s “strategic partnerships” for games like Destiny 2.
Players on Xbox and PlayStation will both be able to play the game, but certain pieces of additional content — like weapons, cosmetic goods and stages — will only be accessible to those on PlayStation.
“I don’t see those things as positive things for the industry,” Spencer says. He also points to cross-platform play (where PC, Xbox and Nintendo Switch gamers can play together in certain games, a scheme PlayStation wants no part of), and backwards compatibility as examples of Xbox’s gamer-first mentality.
Sony’s Ryan suggests that there’s more than one way to be “gamer first”.
“We set our stall out there with what we consider to be forward-facing innovation,” he says.
“Last year we announced and launched PlayStation VR, announced and launched [the] PS4 Pro, and there’s only so much time and money and human bandwidth to bring platform level initiatives to market.”
While PlayStation was shipping these machines, Ryan says, Xbox was implementing a “mid-cycle introduction of backwards compatibility,” which means games have to be retrofitted on a per-game basis.
“That’s an equally valid approach, but is ‘gamer first’ getting PS4 Pro out in 2016 versus getting Xbox One X out in late 2017? I don’t know. It’s easy to throw slogans like that around but they’re both valid approaches.”
And speaking of virtual reality, the technology was generating a lot of buzz when PlayStation launched its headset last year and, while games have dripped out slowly over the proceeding time, the device hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. Ryan says they’re just getting started.
“It’s still really early, and everybody is still learning about it. What makes a great VR experience? I don’t think anybody properly knows yet,” he says.
“All the old preconceptions of how things work, they don’t apply in VR. It’s going to take a while for it all to shake out.”
PlayStation is currently “trying to get a lot of insight and knowledge into how people are using VR” and the various controllers PlayStation offers to use with it,” Ryan says, “and clearly we will reflect very carefully upon that knowledge base and seek to, as time passes, come up with better ways of allowing people to enjoy VR”.
If he had to guess, more new, VR-specific controllers “is a very logical train of thought”. “And there’s definitely going to be a role for some sort of bespoke interface,” he says.
For Spencer, there’s no rush. Despite previously confirming the powerful 2017 Xbox would eventually support VR, he made no mention of it at E3’s One X reveal.
“We’re big believers in mixed reality, but we’re kind of responding to what our customers are asking us to show them right now,” he says, pointing to Windows and not Xbox as the place where developers are most interested in playing around with AR and VR.
As the technology stands, Spencer also doesn’t think be best VR experiences can be consistently delivered in the lounge room since setups differ so substantially.
“The take up and take down is not easy,” he says. “The usability of a device in your home is something you really have to think through.”
Even though he just introduced a powerful new console, Spencer doesn’t really care which machine gamers use to get at Xbox’s range of games and services.
“You’ve got people who haven’t joined this generation of consoles yet. Maybe they’re PC gamers or they’re maybe just still running their Xbox 360. I think for that customer we look at the Xbox One S,” Spencer says.
The One X then is for people who want the very best, and for PC gamers who have already experienced 4K gaming and know it’s the real deal. Since a gamer’s library of Xbox games — and a growing number of Windows games — go with them from device to device, Spencer says games you buy now will only get better in the future if and when you upgrade to a new machine.
The One X is also smaller than the One S, and both are many times smaller than the original Xbox One, which was released before Spencer’s time as boss. This focus on size is partly for aesthetics, but also because Spencer is conscious of the fact that not all play spaces are as large and accommodating as the American lounge room.
“It’s easy for us to become so centric on our houses and our setups and the size of our TVs,” he says. “You know there are quite a few people that take our consoles and plug them in into monitors, and are actually using them on a desk.”
For his part, Ryan was keen to extol the virtues of PlayLink — a new standard for casual, party-focused games on PlayStation 4 — as a way Sony was broadening its horizons. The system, which lets a number of people play games together using their own smartphones or tablets, plus the TV, is just the thing to keep growth ticking along now that almost all dedicated gamers have a PS4, Ryan says.
“It’s quite a significant and important initiative that we’re taking, as we move past 60 million PS4s sold. By definition you sort of run out of core gamers and you have to talk to a more casual audience,” he says, noting that while the big, cinematic type games PlayStation showed at its conference are still very important, PlayLink is a new kind of game that the company is still sorting out how to promote.
“You can’t really have five people playing these games on a stage with thousands of people watching. We’ve tried to do that sort of thing internally to get the message across, it doesn’t work,” he says.
Asked if the new direction would take PlayStation up against a resurgent Nintendo, its original rival, Ryan laughs.
“It’s never wise to try and pigeon-hole Nintendo, and never wise to try and predict where they’re going next, that’s one of the really great things about them,” he says.
“It’s very possible and interesting to have the conversation we just had about the different approaches between Sony and Microsoft, but trying to overlay Nintendo onto that template is just impossible.”
While he may not see them as direct competition, Ryan predicts the success of Nintendo’s latest console, the Switch, will be good news for everyone.
“In the Australian market there’s been a sort of retailer contraction, a bit of a sense of things folding in on themselves, so I think Nintendo coming back can only help the ecosystem there,” he says.
The author travelled to E3 2017 as a guest of Ubisoft.